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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Should Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer have antlers or not?

Published 24/12/2013 | 05:38

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The original Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a fictional character created in a booklet written by Robert May for Christmas 1939. Almost all male deer grow antlers and they use these to fight other males for access to females. Reindeer are no exception.

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On the cover of May's booklet the eight Reindeers pulling Santa's sleigh are shown sporting antlers but Rudolph, the lead animal, is featured antlerless. Many subsequent depictions by other illustrators show him sporting a fine pair of antlers.

So, should Rudolph have antlers or not? Writing in the current issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, antler expert Craig Roberts reminds us that male Reindeers shed their antlers in autumn after the rut. So males should not have antlers at Christmas time.

Reindeer are exceptional among deer in that females grow antlers too and they don't shed them until after calving in springtime. The native peoples who inhabit Lapland use Reindeer to pull pulks, the short, low-slung toboggans used to transport goods across the snowy wastes.

Female Reindeer are not as strong as males so males are the preferred beasts of burden. However, males can be difficult to handle. To make them more docile and easier to handle the time-honoured tradition was to castrate them. It is said that the Sami people of Lapland perfected a technique of neutering that rendered males sterile but preserved hormone production to make the animals grow bigger and stronger. Like females, these neutered animals kept their antlers throughout the winter and shed them in the spring.

Robert May, who created the red-nosed Reindeer, said Rudolph was a buck or male. So, while it may make him look good, adorning Rudolph with a pair of antlers turns him into a neutered male and is therefore unacceptable.

And what about the red nose, that famous, rosy, illuminated schnozzle that lights Santa's way? While it is almost certainly a fictional invention, Reindeer can apparently have exceptionally red noses.

Reindeer have specialised noses that have evolved to cope with the extremely cold, dry Arctic air. The surface area of the nostrils is greatly increased in size and is generously supplied with blood vessels. This allows the animal's body heat to warm the incoming cold air before it enters the lungs. The mucous membranes of the nose and sinuses of Reindeer can be infected by parasitic worms and crustaceans causing the nose to become swollen, infected, more suffused with blood vessels and redder.

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